Sorry Salman Khan: celebrity contagions are not as valuable in India as they are in the USA

Objective authenticity relates to authenticity derived from the claims about an object being verifiable, for example, a pink Kimberley diamond from Western Australia or the red sequinned shoes worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz. Objective authenticity is the most straightforward of authenticity claims; but is it the most reliable cross culturally? An interesting recent article in PLOS ONE by Nathanial Gjersoe, George Newman, Vladimi Chituc and Bruce Hood asks this question, exploring the dimensions of objective authenticity across two cultures. In so doing, they draw an interesting boundary between objective authenticity and constructive authenticity.

Their article “Individualism and the Extended Self: Cross-Cultural Differences in the Valuation of Authentic Objects”, studies the valuation of authenticity across cultures. Specifically whether the effect of value attached to unique person (like a celebrity) has the same value in India as it does in the United States.

The Take Aways
This study demonstrates that the perceived value of an authentic object differs across cultures. The researchers investigated the perceived value of objects that were authentic because if their age (such as a dinosaur bone)  as opposed to objects that were authentic because of a contagion effect (such as an work by a famous artist or an article of clothing worn by a celebrity).

Their hypothesis is that individualistic cultures will value objects associated with unique persons more than non-individualistic cultures will. However both cultures will equally value authenticity not related to persons.

Their hypothesis is borne out in the study, where respondents from India and the USA were asked about the value tof objects that were authentic due to their intrinsic attributes (such as rarity and age) against objects that are authentic due to their extrinsic value (such as the people they may be associated with).

What they found was that intrinsic authenticity appealed to both cultures equally. However, authenticity associated with unique persons was more meaningful amongst the Americans than amongst the Indians. The authors claim that this is because of the cultural difference between India and the USA: the USA is a culture that values the individual more than India does. Although this may indeed be the reason, I have a sense that there may be many reasons why the results of this study turned out the way they did. However, this post is not about what the researchers claim they found; it is about something they did not address at all that their findings demonstrated.

Objective (and Constructive) Authenticity
Although this article is interesting in its own right, its by-product demonstrates something very important about the difference between objective and constructive authenticity: namely the boundary between an intrinsic authentic characteristic and an extrinsic one.

Objective authenticity is something that belongs to an object. It can be confirmed or refuted by an external body. Constructive authenticity is about the authenticity, and value, placed on an object from outside the object itself (as it is constructed by the individual). The value of a celebrity connection with a product experience is such a great way to test this. As it turns out, which celebrity connection one makes–along with the concept of a celebrity connection altogether–can vary depending on one’s individual values. It also varies based on the communal values and beliefs in of a particular culture. The Indian respondents simply did not value celebrity connection to an object, even when the celebrity was someone who is held in high esteem in their culture.

Literature on authenticity in marketing and leadership focuses primarily on the generator: the marketer, the leader, the firm trying to communicate authentically. Few studies have focused on the receivers’ participation in what the producer is trying to convey. Authenticity, and the value that arises from it, is not just about what the producer is doing. It is about what the consumer is prepared to receive.

One of the best movie scenes that illustrates this  from the Australian movie Priscilla Queen of the Desert, about three drag  queens trekking to a gig in Alice Springs. In the scene, Felicia (played by Guy Pearce) shows Bernadette (Terrance Stamp) her most prized possession in the world, an authentic souvenir from her idol: Agnetha of Abba fame. An explanation of what it is, and how its authenticity was verified by Felicia, both mystifies and horrifies Bernadette.

When marketers are expending resources crafting authentic experiences, one question they can sometimes fail to ask themselves is whether this kind of authenticity has value and if so how much? Like brand equity or price elasticity, the value placed on authenticity is not absolute and should be tested.

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Authenticity does not matter to everyone (for everything)

This blog started with a post titled “Authenticity Matters“. I would love to tell you that authenticity matters to everyone all the time. About everything. But that cannot possibly be the case, and a 2009 study by Shuling Liao and Yu-Yi Ma entitled “Conceptualising Consumer Need for Product Authenticity” in the International Journal of Business and Information does a great job of demonstrating this.

Take Aways
First, this paper demonstrates that authenticity matters to some people about some products in some situations. But it does not matter to everyone all the time.

Second, if authenticity matters to you about something (for example, eating authentic Japanese food), you will go out of your way and invest time in finding an authentic product experience. You will then be more likely to repeat purchase the product and you will also be more likely to recommend the product. You are more invested in the experience and, in extreme circumstances, you can start to identify so strongly with the product experience that it becomes part of your identity. For example, you might start to look down on people who eat what you consider inauthentic Japanese food. Or you may begin to feel a connection to other people who patronise that restaurant.

If you are not invested in the authenticity of your Japanese food, you’ll eat it anywhere and may not be particularly attached to any one place. You are also more likely to have your consumption habits driven by price rather than quality.

This is important for marketers as it is another way we can segment, and appeal to, customers: authenticity-driven vs not authenticity-driven. Moreover it explains why some people are so into something and some people aren’t–and their subsequent behaviour.

Third, this study was completed in Asia, likely in Taiwan. Although the Taiwanese can be western in their approach to consumption in some circumstances, that is not always the case. The Western attitude toward authenticity is said to have emerged from particular cultural events shaping the Western world view. Although Eastern cultures may have had different events, their take on authenticity appears to be very similar to the Western view.

360da
In addition to the above, the study looks at 6 different properties of authenticity, with each property having several dimensions. Some of the properties, and their dimensions, fit in the 360da framework as follows. The italicised concepts are from the article; the bold is form the 360da framework.

Originality (original, from a place known for the product, pioneer/innovator, cannot be imitated, made from natural materials) [360da: Objective Authenticity]

Quality. Commitment and Credibility (quality guarantee, robust quality, honesty, meets expectations) [360da: Commercial Authenticity]

Heritage and Style (consistent features, embodies tradition) [360da: Constructive Authenticity]

Sacredness (high levels of personal identification, high levels of personal involvement, nostalgic quality) [360da: Existential Authenticity]

Some of the properties apply to some products and not others and are therefore not general enough to fit into 360da:

Scarceness (hard to find, scarce)

Purity (not mixed with other materials, focused on one thing)

This article is available free on the internet, and although it only one article and a small sample size, it is demonstrating something really interesting and important to those of us in the authenticity business. If you have a chance to read it, I recommend it.